Towards A New World, then, one harboured a sense of restful expectation. The story, insofar as a storyline is of any importance in a Chaudhuri novel, hovers around the intersection of two marriages: one thrust into the twilight realm of divorce courts; the other built on mutual understanding, tradition and the habit of years. Over one summer, Jayojit and his son Bonny return from the US to Calcutta, sharing this respite from the divorce with Jayojit's parents, a retired admiral and his wife adjusting to the vicissitudes of falling incomes and the city's gradual takeover by the Marwaris. As is usual with Chaudhuri, action is minimal; it's through a gradual accumulation of details and observations interspersed with the quiet banalities of life that the novel grows.
Except that it doesn't, unfortunately. The events that led to Jayojit's divorce and his wife Amala's liaison with her unprepossessing gynaecologist unfold at the slow pace of molasses (it's disconcerting that Amala, an indirect presence in the novel, should be one of its most vivid characters). Running lazily alongside is the parallel narrative of the undisturbed tenor of the senior Chatterjees' life, marked by an inexorable, if sadly dignified, descent from upper-middle-class respectability into impoverished gentility.
It would be all too easy to praise A New World; it's streets ahead of much that's emerged in Indian writing in English. But Chaudhuri demands to be judged by a different yardstick, along with the John Updikes, and he doesn't come through. His command over detail is shaky, causing him to lump together the significant with the banal too often. Yet, few authors can fail with quite as much elegance, and there are occasional passages of charm and poignancy, as when the admiral and his wife temporarily eschew the background rhythm of the daily soaps in the face of the prolonged custody battle for Bonny. "One day, when Mrs Chatterjee was sitting absently before the TV...she saw a face and heard a voice that was dimly familiar. The blonde, sturdy-jawed woman was someone she'd met before: it was Anastasia. She was filled with longing for a bygone simplicity."
But these moments of sudden luminescence are few and far between, and it's hard to enter into the lives of his characters; the very ordinariness that's so compelling in his previous work dwindles into tedium here.
Perhaps it's the pace that's at fault. At times, the novel brought back memories of an iit film audience that suddenly erupted, after hours of somnolent viewing, into whistles and cheers. It transpired they were watching Sleep, Warhol's documentary of a man at rest, and had at last reached the scene where the man's left arm twitches. Likewise, one peruses A New World in search of any activity that might lead to significance, but in vain. Occasionally the novel almost lives up to its promise, as in the poignant evocation of the rituals that attend and ultimately bury Jayojit's listless attempt at going through a second arranged marriage, but it never amounts to anything in the end.
This is partially because Chaudhuri so successfully evokes the airless, enervating atmosphere of a typical Calcutta summer. More than Jayojit, a singularly unemotional protagonist, or Bonny, a singularly unremarkable child, it's the remorselessly humid heat that turns into the novel's main character. This is an accomplishment - it's impossible to read A New World without feeling weighed down by the oppressive torpor of Calcutta - but also a flaw, since it blankets the novel with an inescapable nervelessness. The tension between the old world and the new, symbolised by two very different marriages, is sapped of its energy in the process.
The author does better with his portrait of a Calcutta emerging hesitantly from memories of a faded liveliness into the new world of the title, if you ignore two superfluous digs at current obsessions: Amartya Sen, and Indian writers in English ("They not only look light, they feel lightweight as well"). Elsewhere, Chaudhuri splendidly evokes a world where the old mansions are either crumbling into decay or being reworked as monuments to a new garishness, where mtv, e-mail and taped ragas mark the cultural boundaries of a new generation; where the translucent lure of Pears soap is making way for the expensive allure of Dove. It's here that Chaudhuri's trademark restraint becomes a virtue, where observations come together to create an organic whole.
A New World is not likely to win Chaudhuri a new audience, though fans of his understated style may find something of value within its covers. Most authors at least once produce work that, while less than earthshaking, serves as a transition point, a stepping stone into more rewarding territory. A New World marks Chaudhuri's departure from mining the rich veins of his own experiences into the world of pure fiction. For that, if for nothing else, it's worth notice.
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